Good Bus! The Magic Bus!

One major consideration when making plans to attend Burning Man is “How will I get there?”The options are many, and none of them are easy! If you live a great distance away (as I do, coming from Omaha, Nebraska – a 24 hour trip by car if you drove without stopping) your choice affects your experience greatly. One option is to fly in to Reno, purchase what you need, rent a vehicle and drive in to Black Rock City. This sounds like the simplest option, but it is far from simple. Those who go this route report that their day or two in Reno spent searching for and buying nearly all the supplies they will need for a week in the desert is a high stress, fast paced and expensive experience!

Another option, and the one I chose, is to drive. This is generally cheaper (especially over repeated years) as once you have all of your gear, much of it can be reused for subsequent trips and don’t need to be purchased again and again.

Since I knew I was driving, and I have always wanted to own a school bus for camping and going to music festivals in the summer as I tend to do, I decided it was time to take the plunge and buy a school bus. The advantages of a school bus, once prepared by removing at least a few seats and arranging a sleeping area, are that you are a turtle! You have your own self contained RV style living area (that can be as custom as you can afford to make it.) If you buy a diesel, as I did, your fuel expenses will be not much more than driving a car or large pickup. Also, not much more expensive, and maybe less expensive, than buying plane tickets.

My baby:

JStep’s Shortie   

If you decide to buy a bus, do your research. I don’t mean you have to know how to tear down and rebuild a diesel engine. But know your basic facts about a school bus and your local regs for owning, driving and parking one. In some states it is illegal for a decommissioned school bus to remain “school bus yellow” and must be repainted. In other states it can remain yellow as long as it doesn’t say “school bus” on it. There are also regulations for “large vehicle storage”. Some states treat a school bus as an RV and require no special licensing to drive them (or rent them or even drink from open containers in the back area while they are driven) but some may require the driver to have a limo license or other endorsement. In other words, know what you are getting into!

And here’s another tip; the two best ways to buy a school bus, in this burner’s opinion, are at auction or directly from a school district. Each of these routes has it’s own advantage. If you want to get a bus cheap, auctions are the way to go. People show up to auctions because they want the sports cars, collector cars, vintage/antique cars, boats, motorcycles, etc. They don’t generally go to auctions because they want to buy a bus! I have heard of great deals for auctioned buses, including one full sized luxury touring bus that auctioned for $250. I’ve heard of a full sized prison transport bus going for $100. The downside of the auction route; you probably aren’t going to get a service log or manual and will have no idea how it was maintained. It will be sold “as is” without any real chance to inspect it.

The other method, and the one I chose, of buying direct from a school district (or in my case, direct from my friend who bought direct from the school district) will not be as cheap, but you can almost certainly get a very well maintained vehicle with all the service logs. A little known fact about school buses that are owned by public school districts is that they often are required to replace their vehicles after either a certain length of service or odometer reading, regardless of their condition. This means they are often (like almost always) selling a bus that has nothing wrong with it at all, and has been impeccably maintained on a regular schedule. They always keep every record of service and will include that with the bus when they sell it.

I bought a 1995 Chevy G30 Cutaway Van with less than 90,000 miles on it for $3,500. A STEAL! I have all the service logs and for a diesel engine so well maintained it is far less than halfway through it’s lifetime. (A cutaway van just means the bus was built on a Chevy chassis, hence the normal van-style hood and front end with the big steel box built onto the frame.)

We removed the 4 seats farthest to the back and by trimming a 5′ x 8′ sheet of plywood to 7.5′ and cutting it in half across the center, grabbing a few milk crates that happen to be the same height as the rail running the side of the bus (inside, where the seats mount to the wall) of 11″, we have a simple bed platform we can assemble. Mounted a trailer hitch and borrowed a friends trailer and we were good to go with 4 people making the trip to Black Rock City in the bus.

Here she is enjoying the shade provided by a large camo net at our camp:

Chillin’ in the shade, Burning Man 2011    

Zonked out (yep, that’s me!):

JStep snoozin at noon. Pro-tip; notice the ear plugs! Burning Man is LOUD!  

Notice also the reflective foil that is taped to the windows. Here’s what we learned that made the bus tolerable in the 105+ degree temps at Black Rock City, Nevada:

1) Cover the bus or park it under a decent shade structure
         Burning Man is HOT! It’s not unbearable if you can deal with dry heat, cover yourself, wear sunscreen, etc, but any exposed vehicle is just a solar oven, literally. You can fry eggs on the dashboard of a car with the windows rolled up. This means if your vehicle is exposed to the sun you will wake up a hot sweaty mess at about 10 AM (if you make it that long) and you won’t be able to sleep in there until the sun goes down later. (Just when the party really starts, right?)

2) Have on hand a few rolls of blue painters tape and some mylar film emergency blankets (space blankets).
         They have these at places that sell camping equipment, they are meant for emergency warmth. It’s a micro-thin sheet of reflective mylar, much like the material that makes up a mylar balloon – only thinner and lighter. Cut pieces to fit and tape them over each window inside the bus. (Inside because it should be much less dusty. Playa dust is on everything outside and really makes even the best duct tape fail when it gets hot.)

3) Pay attention to which windows are exposed to the direct sun.
         One side of our bus was partially covered by the camo net and had no mylar on the windows. This was fine as these were the windows facing away from the sun. Since the mylar trick was something we figured out ourselves on the fly we only had two space blankets to use. Next time we will cover all of the windows.

Other resources: – The school bus conversion network.